It was a typical Thursday afternoon.
Our CEO at Prialto, Eric, was inundated with dozens of competing tasks. There was feedback to give employees, phone calls to make with prospects, contracts to sign. But he couldn’t get to any of it until he finished one pressing task.
This normally wouldn’t be an issue, but it happened to be a task he didn’t want to do.
So, what did Eric do?
He found himself procrastinating.
Luckily, he’s been working on building awareness around this tendency, so it doesn’t hamper him for too long. But that doesn’t make the problem go away, at least not entirely.
According to a survey conducted by Darius Foroux, it’s estimated that 88% of workers struggle with procrastination.
Procrastination is a very human phenomenon.
Even the most productive business leaders like Eric procrastinate from time to time, and there are psychological reasons for this that we’ll get into in a moment.
But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s healthy, for you or your business.
In fact, Foroux calculated that the average worker wastes $15,000 of potentially productive time annually due to procrastination.
And procrastination is associated with undesirable personal outcomes as well, including:
- Chronic stress
- Low life satisfaction
- Symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Poor health behaviors
- Chronic illness
To make matters worse, the increased stress that results from procrastination dampens your brain’s executive function. And this directly affects your ability to make good decisions, so you end up procrastinating even more.
Meanwhile, you feel more and more uncomfortable emotionally, with knots in your shoulders getting so tight that it takes 3 massage therapists to work them out.
The question is, how to break free?
Keep reading to find out.
5 Steps to Stop Procrastinating at Work
Procrastination is a sign that there are two issues you need to address.
The first is emotional self-regulation.
Because at its core, procrastination isn’t a problem with your work. It’s not even a problem with your feelings.
Procrastination is a problem with how you deal with uncomfortable feelings when they inevitably arise.
The second issue is organization.
When you are highly organized, there’s little room for procrastination. You know what needs to get done, you prioritize what needs to get prioritized, and you’re less stressed as a result. And when you’re less stressed, you procrastinate less because you have less uncomfortable emotions to deal with.
Since you’re reading this article, it’s obvious that smooth workflows aren’t your reality –yet.
But they can be, if you tackle these two issues head on.
1. First, understand why you procrastinate.
Procrastination happens when want to avoid your feelings. Avoidance only makes those feelings stronger, and yet you keep doing it.
There are a few psychological reasons.
You might just dislike the task.
It’s understandable, there are downsides to every job. But it’s not just doing the task that makes you uncomfortable.
The mere thought of doing an unpleasant task causes the same pain.
Sometimes even more, because you’re keeping yourself stuck instead of moving toward relief.
This is a real physiological reaction, and it hurts on a physical level. Your body produces stress hormones whether you’re imagining a stressful event or actually in the middle of it.
And that rush of stress hormones puts you in survival mode.
If you’re a procrastinator, your natural inclination is to run away when stress hormones kick in, (this is the “flight” in the “fight or flight” stress response.)
Your rational mind stops being rational, and all you can focus on is how to get yourself out of that situation so you can feel better. The problem is still there, but you want relief now, even if that means it’ll be more stressful later.
This is happening because of a phenomenon called present bias.
According to behavioral economists Ted O’Donoghue and Matthew Rabin, present bias is to blame any time you give stronger weight to payoffs that are closer to the present moment vs. a payoff in a more distant future, even if the later payoffs are greater.
The immediate payoff of procrastination is that you get momentary relief when you put off a dreaded task.
The pressure is still there, but it’s like you’re opening the steam valve on the pressure cooker, just a little bit. And thanks to present bias, that little bit of relief sounds more enticing than doing what you’d need to do to let all the steam out.
You’re the kid who eats the marshmallow.
You favor an immediate reward, however small, over a bigger reward later.
Poor organization make this worse.
You’re much more likely to procrastinate when you feel overwhelmed. And you’re much more likely to feel overwhelmed when you don’t have systems in place to organize your time. But it’s not that you’re incapable of organization, (you wouldn’t have made as far as you have if that were the case!)
You really do have too much to do.
Prioritization is difficult when you’re spending half your day trying to organize a million moving pieces.
And while Marie Kondoing your schedule sounds great in theory, the problem is that it takes time to organize your time, and time is something you don’t have enough of.
When overwhelm starts paralyzing you, it’s time to get help.
But not just any help.
A highly organized and reliable productivity assistant can keep you moving forward.
Just imagine the relief you’d feel if you offloaded time-consuming tasks like scheduling, email management, record keeping, and travel arrangements to someone whose entire job it is to deal with them effectively.
A managed virtual assistant service like Prialto can also provide the personalized insights you need so you can prioritize what’s important. And that stress relief will give you much more capacity to handle the challenging projects that would otherwise overwhelm you and lead to procrastination.
There are deeper feelings behind procrastination as well.
And they’re all based on fear.
You may simply fear the discomfort of facing a challenge that you don’t know how to solve yet.
But more often than not, the fear is based on a deep-seated fear of failure.
Perfectionism, self-doubt and insecurity feed the anxious thoughts that motivate procrastination. You experienced failure in the past, you remember how much it hurt, and you’re afraid of reliving that pain in the future.
Unfortunately, procrastination only makes these feelings stronger.
You end up judging yourself for not doing what you’re “supposed” to do, and that self-blame reinforces your sense of unworthiness. Then, all you want to do is dig the procrastination hole deeper so you can keep hiding in it instead of crawling out and moving forward.
2. Name your feelings.
Once you understand where your procrastination is coming from, take a moment to name your feelings.
Ask yourself: “What does the discomfort I’m feeling right now remind me of?”
If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll be able to identify at least one memory that’s holding you back. Once you know where your feelings are coming from, remind yourself that this is not the same moment you experienced in the past.
It might feel similar, but these are new circumstances.
What’s more, you have changed.
That uncomfortable experience in the past made an impression on you, and you’re not the same person you were then.
You now have the benefit of hindsight to help you navigate this new challenge.
And this reminder can help you replace dread with hope, so you have an easier time getting the job done instead of procrastinating.
3. Make goals more manageable.
Procrastination only happens when you feel overwhelmed, and a lot of the time this is because the task you’re thinking about is too big.
If it were small and simple, you’d just do the task and move on.
But even if you have the skills to tackle it, a task you feel overwhelmed by becomes lot bigger and scarier when it’s allowed to percolate in your mind. You can stop the swell by putting a plan on physical paper or in a document, with small and clear action steps.
Say goodbye to task paralysis and procrastination!
Once you have a plan, all you have to do is take the next step. Then momentum can take over it’s easier to keep going.
4. Give yourself deadlines.
When you’re struggling with procrastination, it’s helpful to create deadlines for each step along the way instead of having a single daunting deadline in the more distant future.
Then, instead of suffering under Present Bias, you’re hacking it to your advantage.
You help yourself feel better, faster, by bringing a sense of accomplishment into your immediate experience when each small step is done.
I can’t think of many things that feel better than crossing a task off a to-do list.
It can also be helpful to “Eat the Frog”.
“If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first.”
Look at your plan first thing in the morning and decide what the biggest, most important, and/or most uncomfortable task is. Then do that first.
Because willpower expires as the day progresses.
The more decisions you make, the less aptitude you have to make good decisions.
A 2018 conceptual analysis of decision fatigue, published in the Journal of Health Psychology, explains that just like stress, decision fatigue reduces executive function and inhibits reasoning ability. So, if you have important decisions to make, it’s best to make them first thing in the morning.
And this is even more true when faced with uncomfortable tasks.
5. Reinforce a “do-it-now” attitude.
Procrastination is a habit you have to break.
And the easiest way to make or break a habit is to reinforce action-forward behavior by setting up rewards and punishments.
In his bestselling book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that at the core of every habit is a neurological loop: A cue, a routine, and a reward.
In the case of procrastination, the cue is the uncomfortable emotion associated with an unwanted task, the routine is doing anything else and trying not to think about it, and the reward is the momentary relief you feel.
The perception of relief is amplified when you compare it to the pain you imagine you’re going to feel when you start the task, (even though it’s usually not that bad.)
If you want to break your procrastination habit, you have to come up with rewards that are even sweeter than that momentary relief.
It can take a bit of experimentation, but if you play around with different rewards for a few days eventually you’ll find something that motivates you to act.
Punishments work the same way but in reverse.
But don’t worry, you don’t have to pull out a flogging belt to change your behavior.
Something as simple as social accountability can be a huge motivator.
If you have an assistant, talk to them about your plan to stop procrastinating, and have them check in on you to make sure you’re following through. The idea of needing to admit failure might be uncomfortable enough to kick you into gear.
Or, as Tim Ferriss suggests, you might have your virtual assistant donate $5 to a political organization you despise if you don’t get your tasks done.
Procrastination is a sign that you are more stressed than you can handle.
As a business leader, you thrive in stressful environments. Still, there’s a limit to how much stress you can take, and procrastination is showing you that you’re past that limit. You can work on your resilience and grit all you want, and it will help.
But the fastest way to stop procrastinating at work is to get someone to help you.
A virtual assistant can help you stay motivated by reducing your to-do list and holding you accountable to what’s most important.
Are you ready to enjoy your work more and stop procrastinating?
Then click here to set up a discovery call and learn all the ways a Prialto productivity assistant can help you.